Backseat driver: Bride of the 13 Curves

Anyone with even a passing interest in urban legends and folklore will know that ghost bride stories (especially in the U.S., which I am most familiar with) are a dime a dozen. Certainly there are some practical reasons for this–white wedding dresses double nicely as ghostly attire, so anyone seeing a pale apparition is likely to think “bride” (though I guess they could also think “guest wearing a hotel robe” and or “toga-sporting frat bro”). But I suspect the root of all these legends goes deeper than that. Weddings are extremely emotionally charged. More pointedly, weddings are (according to historical sexist assumption) extremely emotionally charged for women, since of course we could have no other goal in life other than to get married and pop out babies. Frustrated emotions are a great recipe for hauntings. Add in some more sexist stuff about women being more ~mysterious~ and ~emotional~, thus being more ghost-like even in life, and it’s not a shocker that ghost bride legends grow like weeds. 

That these legends are so common (and so irritating in their implications) is why I have ignored them on this blog so far (except for a passing story here). But having recently been a bride myself (#COVIDwedding), I figured that it was about time that I gave one a shot.

Seatbelts: You gotta wear ’em

Okay, so this legend is also pretty typical in that it starts out with a car crash. 

Marcellus, New York is a little town not far from Syracuse, with a population of about 6,200. It’s a scenic area full of hills, valleys, and winding, winding roads (I once ate Burger King on a road trip down one of these roads, and regretted it bitterly). The windiest of these is Cedarville Road, an unlit, rapidly twisting mile of asphalt through thick woods that has earned the moniker of “the 13 curves.”

Like this, though not this road exactly.

Regardless of how you feel about the veracity of ghost stories, this road can legitimately be dangerous. A woman died there in a 1941 collision, and 2 more girls died in 1959 when their toboggan slid onto the road and met with a station wagon. The officer responding to that scene had trouble standing up straight, the road was so icy. Even discounting weather conditions and the fact that the road is infamously dark, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that quick switchbacks + speeding cars can equal disaster. 

Naturally, such a disaster is said to have befallen our veil-toting protagonist, sometime between 1900s and today. The legends vary, but generally speaking say that a buggy, car, or motorcycle was carrying newlyweds down Cedarville Road when, around the 6th curve, the husband lost control of the vehicle. It spun out and smashed into the creek, killing the bride, groom, or both. Regardless of who died when, the groom didn’t see fit to stick around. But the bride sure did. 

Why did the ghost bride cross the road?

The script for 13 Curves bride sightings varies as much as the origin legends, but the most basic follows the experience of Msmarymac, who relates what happened when they were driving down the expanse of road one night with a friend:

Blood and glowing eyes not shown here.

“While making our way around the sixth curve, a dim glowing white shape appeared in the road ahead of us. It slowly made its way from the left side of the road to the right. When it got right in the middle of the road, it stopped and turned towards us. It was about the height of an average woman, but it was not very well defined––it was more of a staticy blur than a clear image. It did have a red glow up near where the head would approximately be on a human being.

I slowed the car to a near halt, amazed at what I was seeing. “Do you––“ I started to ask.

“Yeah, this is nuts,” my friend responded before I could even finish the question.

Just after our exchange, the shape darted to the right, off the side of the road, disappearing. We hightailed it out of there.”

There are also fun tales of people checking their rearview mirror out of habit, only to find a blood-covered woman staring at them from the back seat. That alone is enough to cause someone to crash, but 13 Curves bride also enjoys darting out at random into the road. Some say that her goal is to make an already dangerous road more, trying to create crashes so that others can suffer as she has. 

The woman of your dreams

So we know that at least 3 people have died on Cedarville Road. Is there evidence of a couple dying there as well? Something other than hearsay on which we can base this story?

In short, no. The William G. Pomeroy Foundation highlights that while we have written histories of the other deaths, nothing shows up about the demise of a newlywed couple, which is odd since something as juicy as that would have surely made the news. Their article suggests that the whole thing can be traced back to a deliberate hoax, wherein a local woman wanted to get back at some “smart aleck” teenagers. She enlisted the help of her daughter to dress as the bride, and then drove the teens down the 13 Curves and scared the bejeezus out of them. 

But that doesn’t seem to matter. Regardless of how little the 13 Curves bride legend is based in reality, it continues to have legs. People flock to the road at night in an attempt to see the ghost, particularly around Halloween. Locals seemingly do as much as they can to encourage them. A sign sits at the top of the road telling the bride’s story, and homeowners near it set up frighteningly realistic decorations that look like the bride, even dressing up as her themselves to see if they can’t scare some passerby. 

You yourself could go on a drive to see the ghost this Halloween–it’s a socially-distanced activity perfect for the whole family. 👌 Even if there was no ghost to begin with, who’s to say our collective subconscious hasn’t brought some shade to life?

Collect them all! What is your favorite ghost bride story? Anyone know of any that actually involve a ghost groom (I Googled for that in vain)? Share your thoughts in the comments below. 

PHOTO CRED: Strong Unsplash representation this month; a big thanks for the not-technically-the-road-but-a-road by Lauren Coleman on Unsplash and creepiest-Creative-Commons-bride-I-could-find-that-was-not-a-zombie by Joel Overbeck on Unsplash.

Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody–

Sleepovers! Those are a thing that used to happen, back in the days before COVID-19. The ones I experienced growing up were pretty stereotypical. There was ice cream, sleeping bags, attempts to reproduce music videos, and, of course, dares. More often than not, these dares included one many American girls might be familiar with: the dare to lock yourself in the crapper and invite a ghost to kill you. 

I had always assumed that the Bloody Mary “game” was just shallow fun, with no real meat behind it in terms of meaning or actual sightings. Hot damn, was I wrong.  

Bathroom roulette

Let’s start out with an introduction. The Bloody Mary legend is young-ish, with first written mentions dating back to the 1970’s. It’s unclear where exactly it came from, but it does seem to have some ancestry in older British traditions of catoptromancy (such as one where a girl would walk up a flight of stairs backward in a darkened house, holding a candle and a hand mirror that would show either the face of her future husband [score!] or her own skull [eat more healthily and avoid cigarettes and fast-moving buses!]). 

Bathroom
Behold this place of horror!

For those uninitiated, the game goes something like this:

  1. Go into the bathroom, shut the door, and turn the lights off. 
  2. Look at whatever you can see of yourself in the darkness in the mirror.
  3. Repeat “Bloody Mary” aloud three times, keeping your eyes on your reflection.
  4. Bolt before Bloody Mary coalesces in the glass.

The details of the rules vary. Some say you’re supposed to spin while you say her name, others that you need to have the water on or have a single lit candle below the mirror. You can say “Bloody Mary” a bunch of times (way more than three), or for good measure add “I killed your baby!” You can do it by yourself or in a group. Sometimes, you have to flush the toilet before you leave.

Even if you escape that vision in the mirror, you might experience “signs” of Bloody Mary for the rest of the day–a bloodied knee on the playground. Splattered ketchup across your shirt. A dead bird on the way home from school. 

And if you don’t escape her? If a woman drenched in blood, or headless, or simply very dead does coalesce before you, either over your shoulder or in place of your own reflection? Bloody Mary can scratch you, show you a sign of your own impending death, or reach out of the mirror, grasp your shirt, and drag you through. 

Gory histories

So this is all good and well. But as a kid I never stopped to ask: who is this Bloody Mary ghost supposed to be? It turns out that there are three generally-cited possibilities.

Erzsébet Báthory

Elizabeth Bathory
“I’m so bored while not murdering” Bathory

The first and least likely (IMHO) is Erzsébet Báthory, the infamous Hungarian noblewoman who tortured and murdered a metric butt-ton of women in the late 1500s (possibly as much as 650, though it’s possible that Báthory was a victim of a conspiracy to steal her property and tortured/murdered much fewer). Legend has it that she bathed in her victim’s blood to preserve her youth. 

It’s all very grisly and memorable. But Erzsébet (or, anglicized, Elizabeth) is “Erzsébet,” not “Mary.” What’s more, her life doesn’t resonate with the Bloody Mary game in a way that the other candidates do, as we shall see.

Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots
Bearing it all pleasantly.

The second candidate is Mary Queen of Scots, who was an unlucky contender for the throne against Queen Elizabeth I. After a life spent mostly imprisoned and struggling for power, Mary was beheaded in 1586. She went to her death bravely, even making jokes, but the executioner botched the job horrifically

The first swing buried the axe into the back of Mary’s skull. The second went into her neck, but didn’t sever it. Finally, the P.O.S. executioner just sawed away at the sinew attaching Mary’s head to her body, blood sluicing everywhere, Mary’s faithful dog still clinging to her skirts, trembling. Job finally finished, the executioner held her severed head aloft, crying “God Save the Queen!” But he’d only grabbed Mary’s wig, and her head fell out and smacked to the floor. 

In short, there is plenty about the scene that makes it easy to believe that Mary might come back as a vengeful ghost. But for me, she’s not as strong of a contender as Elizabeth I’s half-sister, Queen Mary I. 

Queen Mary I, “Bloody” Mary

Queen Mary I actually was nicknamed Bloody Mary, thanks to her burning some 300 Protestants at the stake. Those killed included many vulnerable poor and disabled people. One victim was even pregnant–the trauma of the burning made her give birth, but her newborn was simply tossed back in the fire with her. 

Queen Mary I, Bloody Mary
Those arms are definitely long enough to reach out and pull you over the sink.

Hard as it is to empathize with someone who could order that, Mary I wasn’t the only monarch to do so, and much of the vitriol against her seems to stem from misogyny and cruelty against her frumpiness. She was a miserable woman. Her father was King Henry VIII, who famously annulled his marriage to her mother in order to marry Anne Boleyn, who gave birth to the much prettier and more charming Elizabeth I, who Mary would forever be compared unfavorably to. She was plagued throughout her life by terrible menstrual pains and irregular periods. She married someone ten years her junior whom she was madly in love with, but who was indifferent to her. 

Desperate for affection and political security, Mary hoped, at least, for a child. But when she finally got pregnant–the happiest point of her life–people whispered that it was all a fake, that her growing stomach contained nothing but a tumor. That was cruel enough, but then, when Mary went to give birth, nothing happened. Her stomach deflated, and no baby came out. The vicious rumors were right, but not through any fault of her own. She’d wanted to be pregnant so badly that she’d tricked her body into believing that it was, leaving her with nothing but very public humiliation and hate. 

A common plight

Why do I think that Queen Mary I is mostly likely the Bloody Mary? Because in addition to actually being nicknamed that and killing a bunch of people, Queen Mary I’s problems with fertility and periods dovetail perfectly with the game of Bloody Mary itself. 

Think about it: the game is played mostly by girls. In a bathroom. Looking at your own reflection, you’re summoning another woman that’s covered in blood. It’s frightening, sometimes painful. And in some cases, you take pains to flush the toilet before you leave. 

As scholar Alan Dundes points out, when you look at what goes into the game, it’s hard not to see Bloody Mary as a handy way for pre-pubescent girls to process the oh-so-taboo prospect of getting your first period, and all of the horror that entails. Enter Mary I, Queen of frustration, pain, and blood. Who better to teach you about the importance and terror of periods than the woman whose problems with them made her life a living hell?

The monster in the mirror

So there is all of that. Bloody Mary is a surprisingly nuanced allegory for something almost all girls have to contend with. But clever though that allegory might be, here’s something even more fun: sometimes, Mary isn’t an allegory at all. Given the right conditions, shrieking slumber party participants will actually see another face in the mirror. 

A 2009 study of 50 test-naive individuals revealed that after less than a minute of gazing into their reflections in dim light, so-called “strange-face illusions” began–for every single participant. From Giovanni Caputo, the author of the study:

“The descriptions differed greatly across individuals and included: (a) huge deformations of one’s own face (reported by 66% of the fifty participants); (b) a parent’s face with traits changed (18%), of whom 8% were still alive and 10% were deceased; (c) an unknown person (28%); (d) an archetypal face, such as that of an old woman, a child, or a portrait of an ancestor (28%); (e) an animal face such as that of a cat, pig, or lion (18%); (f ) fantastical and monstrous beings (48%).”

Obviously in the context of Bloody Mary, we are interested chiefly in this last one. Caputo himself seems puzzled by it, especially as he tries to put together what exactly is happening with these illusions. As he puts it:

“The disappearance or attenuation of face traits could be linked to the Troxler fading that occurs in the periphery while staring at a central fixation. However, this explanation would predict that face traits should fade away and eventually disappear (Wade 2000), whereas the apparitions in the mirror consist of new faces having new traits.”

Maybe, he postulates, this “strange-face” illusion thing is just a misfiring of the brain’s face-processing mechanism–with the dim light and the fixed attention, it’s freaking out and scrambling and deforming your own face. Seems simple enough. And yet…

“Frequent apparitions of strange faces of known or unknown people support the idea that the illusion involves a high-level mechanism that is specific to global face processing. On the other hand, the frequent apparition of fantastical and monstrous beings, and of animal faces cannot, in our opinion, be explained by any actual theory of face processing. Neither constructive approaches nor top down accounts seem to provide adequate explanations.” 

God, I love me some weird stuff that science can’t explain. And I love me some weird modern rituals that get at the ID of our brain, and some dramatic and twisted histories. Who would have known that plain old Bloody Mary would have all three?

Had any fun times gazing into a dark mirror? Maybe you haven’t looked close enough. Give it a try and share your hallucinations (…?) in the comments below. 

IMAGE CRED: Wolfmann for the bathroom; Public domain for Bathory; Public domain for Mary Queen of Scots; Public domain for Mary I; Susanne Nilsson for the candle.

Ghosts of the Revolutionary War: Fort Mifflin

Happy hangover-after-Independence Day! In case you haven’t gotten enough America, I’ve got a themed post for you. I hope you like history. And ghosts. 

Authentic reenactments

Fort Mifflin from above.
Fort Mifflin from above.

Fort Mifflin, located on “Mud Island” in the Delaware River just south of Philadelphia, is a historic landmark that attracts thousands of school groups, history buffs, and curious tourists each year. Visitors walk one of the only remaining Revolutionary War battlefields and see barracks, hospital grounds, gunpowder rooms, and more. They learn from uniformed guides and reenactors how 200+ men gave their lives in 1777 so that Washington could make his escape, and then how the fort morphed to be used in the Civil War, WWI, WWII, and others. 

One of these visitors included a woman who was especially impressed by the casemates, a fortified area that was constructed after 1777 in order to protect soldiers from any future bombardments. The casements are dark and dank, with few windows and so many bugs that they were deemed unsuitable for habitation not long after they were built. But during the Civil War, Fort Mifflin housed people there anyway, using the cave-like rooms as makeshift prisons. Awed by this more atmospheric section of the fort–and the excellent tour guide that presided over it–the visitor went immediately to pass on her compliments to Dori McMunn, then Executive Director of Fort Mifflin on the Delaware. Pleased, McMunn asked her if she could give a description of her guide, so that McMunn could pass along her compliments. 

Not wanting to disturb the woman, McMunn merely thanked her and sent her on her way. But as soon as she was gone, McMunn went into the casements to look for the mysterious man. As she had suspected, they were empty–just the moisture on the ceiling and the bugs on the walls. There was no sign of any man there at all. 

It wouldn’t be the first time guests would come with enthusiastic compliments about “reenactors” that weren’t part of the staff–including more reports specifically about the Civil War fellow. Fort Mifflin’s caretaker also got word of someone giving tours in the powder room, again with guests offering compliments on “how good he was, and how authentic he looked.” Spoiler alert: There was no one giving tours in the powder room. It seemed that the human tour guides were getting a helping hand.

A second kind of history

Unnerving though these appearances were, it is likely that no one was surprised by them. There is a history of odd things happening around Fort Mifflin, not only to visitors, but to staff and more sanctioned reenactors. 

A closer look at what I believe are the officer’s quarters at Fort Mifflin.

Take a former tour guide, who slept in the officer’s quarters for a few nights. Every morning at 3am sharp, the man was awoken by a rapping on his door. There was no one outside. The guide knew–and probably laid very still in his bed knowing–that 3am happens to be the time which those at the fort used to switch shifts for the next watch.  

Or take a story from a reenactor that chose to spend the night in the casements. He fell asleep with a fire in the fireplace and the door locked from the inside. Some time later, he started awake. There was a man in his room, a soldier in Revolutionary War gear, warming himself by the fire. When the reenactor looked twice, the figure was gone. His door was still locked. 

He wasn’t the only one to get a surprise. As The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 2009, “re-enactors who spent the night at the fort reported seeing ‘black, pajama-like shadows’ that spooked them so bad they fired blanks from their period firearms at them. Some saw jiggling doorknobs, a figure peering from an unoccupied room and a hissing shadowy figure. At night’s end, ‘I was picking up trash when I heard the most pleasant woman’s voice in my ear say: ‘Thank you!’’ said re-enactor Ryan Rentschler, who was so unnerved that he ditched the fort sleepover to camp out in a friend’s van.”

To some staff, the occurrences are so common as to almost become old hat. There are numerous accounts of interrupted work, such as the deliberately-closed door to the blacksmith shop repeatedly opening itself on a hot day (staff presumed that 18th-century “Jacob the blacksmith” was feeling stifled). Once a dark figure disappeared into one of the buildings at closing time, only to leap out at the guide that went to hunt them down. Pencils and files spontaneously going missing from office drawers. Windows spring open in the dead of winter. You get the idea.

200-year-old celebrities 

On top of all of these are the handful of personalities who are regulars. One is “The Lamplighter,” a man with black hair and a white puffy shirt who drifts through the soldier’s barracks, carrying a long pole with a dim candle at the end to light lamps that disappeared some 200 years ago. 

Fort Mifflin as darkness falls.

Another is Elizabeth Pratt, or, less kindly, “the Screaming Lady.”  Legend has it that she was a wife living in the officer’s quarters that had a nasty falling out with her daughter. Before they could reconcile, the daughter got sick and died. Mad with grief, Elizabeth took her own life shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, her anguish didn’t die with her. There have been reports of her screams echoing from the officer’s quarters, to the point that neighbors have called the police. She is also sometimes seen by children peering out the window of her old room, one hand to her forehead, perhaps hoping to see her daughter among the kids outside. 

Perhaps the most sinister ghost is that of the “Faceless Man.” During the Civil War, Private William H. Howe was arrested and held at Fort Mifflin on two charges: desertion and the murder of the officer that went to arrest him. Howe admitted to the desertion, but never to the murder. Nevertheless, it was his fate to become the only prisoner to ever be hanged at Fort Mifflin, a black bag over his head. Supposedly, the grass still refuses to grow at the site where he died, and he is still floats around the casements–a man whose face, even in death, cannot be seen. 

History lives” at Fort Mifflin

Far from trying to quiet these stories, the Fort Mifflin on the Delaware nonprofit organization has chosen to lean into them. And why not? Ghost hunters have helped to raise nearly 40% of the site’s budget. You can go on candlelight ghost tours and even book private overnight stays today. I myself might try to, provided the pandemic ever clears up.

If we’re lucky, we might get a more intimate glimpse into the past than the lovely grounds and educational materials alone can offer. As the Philadelphia Ghost Hunters Alliance’s Lewis B. Gerew II noted, “It’s great to have a piece of history actually interact with you.”

Which war would you most like to interact with a ghost from? Share your preferences in the comments below. 

IMAGE CRED: Big thanks to Surfsupusa for Fort Mifflin from above, Larry Lamb for a closer look at the buildings, and Charles Homler for Fort Mifflin at night.

Love (of sugar) never dies: the haunting of Fiorello Dolce

During this whole self-isolation pandemic apocalypse thing, I have noticed two things about myself: 1) I miss eating out way more than I thought I would and 2) I have more of a sweet tooth than I thought I did. Based on what I’m seeing around the internet, it looks like I’m in good company. And in the case of Long Island patisserie Fiorrello Dolce, that company includes beings from beyond the veil.

Glazed and confused

Fiorello Dolce was founded in the summer of 2006 by Gerard Fioravanti and Steven Marinello. It’s a cute, modern shop situated at the far end of a little strip of stores in Huntington, New York. All of their pastries are made from scratch, using only butter and the freshest ingredients they can find. Executive Pastry Chef Fioravanti has an impressive pedigree, having studied at the French Culinary Institute in New York City and baked pastries with famous pastry chefs and for famous celebrities (including David Bowie!). He brought all that knowledge to Fiorello Dolce and ensured its success with legendary croissants, flourless chocolate cakes, and “frenangles” (a proprietary cross between a french croissant and a bagel that looks painfully good). In short, the launch of Fiorello Dolce was great; totally normal. 

pastries
Here, have some pastry imagery.

Then one day, when Fioravanti was working alone in the kitchen, the quiet was shattered by a voice shrieking his name. Startled, Fioravanti checked the tires of the cart he was wheeling–that shriek must have been them squealing, because there was definitely no one else around. But the tires seemed fine. It must have just been a weird fluke. 

But then there was another weird fluke: a new employee–who claimed to have some psychic abilities–told him almost immediately upon their arrival that there were definitely ghosts in the shop. By now Fioravanti was beginning to become concerned, and shared his concerns with Marinello. Marinello scoffed them off, until a bunch of buckets spontaneously crashed off the shelves right in front of him. Then one morning when Fioravanti was baking blueberry muffins, he saw a “white shadowy light” blur past him out of the corner of his eye. 

Over the next months came the real fun stuff. Oven doors opened by themselves. Untouched timers turned off before their time, causing batches of cookies to burn. Spatulas whispered and tinkled on their racks. A rolling rack shifted itself over a foot. Security cam footage revealed a roll of paper towels luxuriously unrolling itself in the dead of night–a feat no one could replicate even with the flow of the air conditioner. 

One morning, the crew came in to find the front iPad blasting music, skipping songs after a few beats as if someone were searching for something they liked, until at last landing on “Blue Monday” by New Order and cranking the volume. Though there was no one behind the counter, security footage showed the screen lighting up and the password being typed in again and again. It only went dark with Fioravanti rushed over to turn it around.

That was it. Fiorello Dolce were totally haunted.

A calculated whisk

Despite the bizarre circumstances, business continued as usual. After all, there was nothing threatening about the disruptions–just a little startling (such as when one employee stepped into the walk-in refrigerator and jumped at a clap behind her, only to whirl and find that no one was there). But everyone was curious about what was up.

By happy circumstance, Giovanti met a ghost hunter, who then brought in a medium. They photographed orbs, found cold spots, and got repeated off-the-chart readings around the spatulas. Overall the energy they picked up was good-natured, which the staff was doubtless happy to hear. But there was something different about the alleyway immediately outside the back of the store–a sinking feeling of dread, foreboding. The medium quickly turned back inside.

ghost orbs
Image of alleged ghost orbs–not of Fiorello Dolce’s, though Fiorello Dolce has many.

Research revealed that the bakery was built on land that used to contain nothing but wetlands and run-down rowhouses–the poorest (and roughest) neighborhood in Huntington. The medium picked up one ghost telling him that his name was Eddie. Sure enough, after more research it turned out that a man named Eddie had been murdered in that very alley back in the 1970’s, which might explain the weird vibes. Fortunately, every other ghost the medium connected with seemed to have a less violent past.

It seems like Giovanti has brought in a few mediums over the years to try to figure this thing out, but the results have been no different. He even tried hanging up medicinal sage one night, to see if that would drive the spirits away. The next morning, the sage was on the ground. The ghosts were here to stay. 

For old time’s cake

So does working in a haunted bakery freak Giovanti or his staff out? Apparently not. You can see in the security camera footage that when strange stuff happens, everyone seems to take it in stride. 

Cream puff
I’m sorry/you’re welcome.

This might be because the team attributes many of the ghostly presences to family members who have come back to hang around and “help out.” Mediums have picked up staff’s grandparents, mothers, aunts. Giovanti has even mentioned that he recognized the face of an old landlord in one of the orb pictures–an elderly gentleman who loved the bakery and was always eager to offer tips on how things should be done

So all in all, this is a positive haunting–spooky, but not scary (except, maybe, for that alleyway). It’s often joked that the ghosts are just there because they miss the sweet scent of baking treats.

In the meantime, the haunting press seems to be good for business; Giovanti is even planning to write a book. Fiorello Dolce was closed due to the coronavirus, but seems to have recently opened once again. I’m sure that Huntington–and all its ghosts–will be glad to have them back. 

What pastry would you return to the mortal plane for? Share your favorites in the comments below.


IMAGE CRED: None of these images are from Fiorello Dolce proper, but as usual, wanted to set the tone (without infringing on copyright). Thank you to Welleschik for the unholily-delicious-looking assortment, mystery Wikimedia contributor for the orbs, and Stu Spivack for the plastic bag cream puff.

Piss off, coronavirus: 3 monsters weirder than the times we live in

Hey everybody. I hope that you all are doing well out there and are practicing social distancing, washing your hands, and covering your face when you go out so as to not inadvertently kill anyone. I’m writing this in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, at the current U.S. “epicenter” in NYC, and things are getting pretty weird right now. 

The news is frightening enough at the moment. So instead of digging into a pestilence monster (too real…), I wanted to share a couple of monsters I’ve come across on my wanderings through the internet that will hopefully make you chuckle. TO DEATH.

1. The Vampire Watermelon (and its nemesis, Vampire Pumpkin)

A real vampire watermelon with tell-tale “blood spots.”

We have the Roma people to thank for this one. Basically the legend goes that if you leave watermelons or pumpkins out for 10 days under the full moon (or around Christmas? Or just leave them in a place where they are in a position to “fight one another”?), they will grow a bad temper and an insatiable thirst for blood. 

Vampiric fruits look much like regular fruits, but will roll around and make growling noises (“brrrl brrrl,” to be precise). Also, they may attempt to infiltrate your house and murder you. You can protect yourself by going all metal on them and boiling them alive, then scrubbing them with a broom, and then burning that broom to ash. No word on whether you can then use the carcass to make pumpkin pie or watermelon jello shots.

Depending on how long this social distancing thing goes on, I may attempt to create my own vampiric produce on my patio next month. Perhaps I can pivot my talent for making plants dead into making them undead. 

2. Gulon the Pooper

Gulon pooping
Possibly the best image of all time.

Raise your hand if you’ve been eating more than usual lately. Keep your hand raised if your favorite snack is the flesh of your enemies. Now keep your hand raised if you like to squeeze yourself between two trees to force the poop out of your butt like a Play-Doh Fun Factory Machine in order to make room for round two. 

The Gulon does all of the above. It is a cryptid hailing from Scandinavia, where I can only assume it is a national treasure. A notorious glutton, the Gulon is about the size and shape of a dog, with the head and claws of a cat and the tail of a fox. Many dismiss its legend as people from the Middle Ages getting overexcited about seeing a wolverine. I myself like to think that the Gulon is real, and probably an ancestor of my cat.

3. Bakezōri, the sandals that stand up on their own

Bakezori
A depiction of the fiends (sans eyeballs).

Truly, being shut in in a small apartment offers an olfactory cornucopia. Mostly the smells here have been good (like everyone else, we’ve been baking a lot of bread), but occasionally some less savory scents creep in. The Bakezōri is born of a neglected sandal–arguably the footwear (outside maybe of ballet flats) that smells the worst.

The Bakezōri is a type of Japanese Yōkai in the family of Tsukumogami–household objects that have been ignored for so long by their owners that they take on a life of their own (perhaps this is might be why Marie Kondo is so insistent about getting rid of your old crap). Basically what happens is that the much-beleaguered thong sprouts arms, legs, and an eyeball, and then runs around the house at night yelling nonsense and making mischief. 

Come to think of it, this monster may also bear some relation to my cat. 

***

That’s all I have for now. Stay safe out there, and keep others safe by going “out there” as little as possible. We’ll see you on the other side.

Really, which would win in a fight, though–a Vampire Pumpkin or a Vampire Watermelon? Perhaps I should cultivate both and set up a Produce Fight livestream so as to make a little cash on the side. Place your bets in the comments below. 

IMAGE CRED: Ke4roh for the malevolent melon; Whatever 16th-century scholar that took the time to painstakingly paint individual poops coming out of the Gulon; Jippensha Ikku for the sandal chase.

Fantasy man: the Rake

The internet, as we well know, is whack. It offers an unimaginable amount of information, and also an unimaginable amount of B.S. I’m going to be straight with you from the start: the Rake is total B.S. We know where the legend came from. We’re able to track its growth. But like so many monster myths, though the Rake started out simply enough, he’s taken on a life of his own.

The Rake: an origin story

We can thank the folks over at 4chan for the Rake’s existence. Back in 2005, they decided to create a new urban legend. After toying with it under the name “Operation Crawler,” they landed on something similar to the Rake the internet knows and loves today: 

Hacker
The creator of the Rake, probably.

“Here’s what we’ve got so far: Humanoid, about six feet tall when standing, but usually crouches and walks on all fours. It has very pale skin. The face is blank. As in, no nose, no mouth. However, it has three solid green eyes, one in the middle of its forehead, and the other two on either side of its head, towards the back. Usually seen in front yards in suburban areas. Usually just watches the observer, but will stand up and attack if approached. When it attacks, a mouth opens up, as if a hinged skull that opens at the chin. Reveals many tiny, but dull teeth.”

As Rake stories developed and got passed around, the subconscious of the internet whittled him into something more elegant: a pale, hairless, naked man (sans genitals, because I guess that would be a little distracting from the terror) with pits for eyes and long, sharp fingers. Those fingers–which cut his victims open–are how the Rake got his name (alas, he is not secretly a cocky womanizer). 

The Rake went from 4chan to LiveJournal and then back again, his legend taking on the form of a standard story, complete with epistemological mini-stories nested within. The story opens in the summer of 2003, with local news stations in upstate New York reporting sightings of a “strange, human-like creature” before an apparent media blackout. People involved in the sightings banned together to try to find answers. Together, they accumulated a group of documents spanning back to the 17th century that detail encounters with the Rake. 

There is a suicide note from 1964, a mariner’s log from 1691, a (somewhat repetitive) translated Spanish journal entry from 1880:

“I have experienced the greatest terror. I have experienced the greatest terror. I have experienced the greatest terror. I see his eyes when I close mine. They are hollow. Black. They saw me and pierced me. His wet hand. I will not sleep. His voice (unintelligible text).”

The coup de grace is an account from 2006. In it, a woman describes waking up in the middle of the night. Sure that her husband has gotten out of bed to go to the bathroom, she tries to steal the sheets, only to find out that he is still next to her:  

“When he turned to face me, he gasped and pulled his feet up from the end of the bed so quickly his knee almost knocked me out of the bed. He then grabbed me and said nothing.

After adjusting to the dark for a half second, I was able to see what caused the strange reaction. At the foot of the bed, sitting and facing away from us, there was what appeared to be a naked man, or a large hairless dog of some sort. Its body position was disturbing and unnatural, as if it had been hit by a car or something.”

The Rake looks at them, and then scrambles over, peering closely into the husband’s face. Neither of them dare move. Then the Rake dashes down the hall toward the childrens’ room. The woman screams and hurries to follow, but is too slow. By the time she gets there, her daughter is covered in blood, and the Rake is gone. Her husband frantically rushes their daughter to the hospital, but loses control of his car on the way and ends up in a lake, killing them both.

Obsessed over whether the Rake has visited again or not, the woman sets up a digital recorder near her bed. After weeks of nothing, she finally catches the Rake’s voice, shrill and high-pitched. With horror, she realizes that she’s heard it before, that he had said something to them that night, though she didn’t register it at the time. She can’t bring herself to listen to the recording, to find out what he might be saying now. She lives in terror of waking to find his face in hers. 

Son of a Rake

The Rake stories hit a nerve and started to spread. A Rake-themed Tumblr account was created in December 2010, and then the story moved onto into the big leagues: CreepyPasta and Unexplained Mysteries. Youtube “sightings” and doctored photographs exploded over the internet. New theories began to emerge: the Rake is a proxy of Slenderman. The authorities know about the Rake, and have attempted (and apparently failed) to flush him out of the woods

The Rake monster
A (not great quality) image of the image you will always see when you look up the Rake.

There was even a detailed explanation of how the Rake reproduces, which involves french kissing, a pupua launching down the human’s throat, and a full-grown Rake bursting forth some months later (the author notes that this is “scientifically no stranger than seeing the presence of horse hair parasites living inside a praying mantis by placing it in water,” but offers no explanation of how they might have come upon this information). 

In short, the Rake was lit. But as soon as he became lit, something strange started to happen: people came forward with very Rake-like stories that predated the original 4chan monstrosity. This new “Rake” was just a name to them, a convenient way to categorize the disturbing things they had seen. From someone on r/Humanoidencounters, who claims they didn’t hear about the Rake Creepypasta until 2016:

“[I] woke up at 3 am to the feeling of something watching me. I felt extremely uneasy. I rolled over to look around the room and my eyes locked onto something standing beside my mom. It was extremely tall but looked as if it had a broken back and couldn’t stand up completely. It was slouched over and had extremely pale skin and bones sticking out under the skin everywhere due to how skinny it was. It had long claws hanging from both hands. It’s face was sunken in and eyes were completely black holes. A few greasy hairs were visible on its head. It had no clothes but also no genitals or nipples.

I was HORRIFIED. I rolled over and covered myself up head to toe with the cover. I refused to move or look out the rest of the night even though I was fully awake. Eventually, my mom finally woke up that morning. She immediately started complaining of her side hurting. She raised her shirt to look and found huge claw marks down her side. It was three deep wounds which were extremely inflamed and still bleeding. I felt horrible knowing that thing did that to her while I lay beside her hidden.

A couple months later I saw the creature again. Although, not as horrible as the first experience. I was woken up to the creature slouched on the floor on my side of the bed. It was watching me sleep. I covered myself up again immediately but this time got the courage to peek out and found it still looking at me. I’m not sure when it went away because I didn’t dare look again.”

And from someone on the Rake Tumblr:

“It was around 4:09 at night and I woke up from hearing scratching noises outside I was so scared but I got up and looked out the window the sun was starting to come up and birds were starting to chirp and all that. So I closed my window and pulled down the curtains. Just as I was turning around I see this naked man that was a very pale grey with huge hands and very long claws it sounded like it was weeping and then I stepped on a broken floorboard and it creeked and the thing slowly turned its head and what I saw has scarred me for life. Its eyes we’re pure white and had a bright glare to them and it’s teeth we’re very long I quickly turned around and about 5 mins of pure silence I got the guts to grab a baseball bat that was next to me and beat the crap out of it until it died but when I turned around all prepared to smack it in the head with my weapon it was gone. I was shocked and I dropped the bat and ran to my bed and buried my face into my pillow crying my eyes out because I could not believe what I just saw.”

Suddenly, the line between the fiction of the Rake and real, off-Photoshop encounters blurred. The Rake, born of 4chan, had become something bigger.  

The Rake returns

So what are we to make of all of this, if these pre-4chan Rake witnesses swear up and down that their accounts are true? This is the internet, and as we know, no one ever lies on the internet. 

Rake
Sorry, couldn’t resist.

The Rake could be explained away by science. Many accounts involve someone waking up in the middle of the night and seeing something standing over them. This might make the bulk of “real” Rake sightings easy to dismiss as colorful episodes of sleep paralysis. Factor in errant camera fluff for those non-bedtime encounters, and we’re all squared away. As I mentioned above, there is something nicely primal about the Rake. Any of us might imagine up a monster like that on our own.

Or, even more scientifically, there could really be a naked dude with eye bags, scoliosis, and acrylic nails going around to stand over people’s beds. It would be easy to confuse that dude and the Rake; anyone could be forgiven for mixing them up. Someone should really get on straightening that out. Surely it would put everyone’s mind at ease.

Who would win in a rap battle: the Rake or the dastardly rake Lord Byron? Share your opinions in the comments below.  

IMAGE CRED: B_A / CC0 for the very convincing hacker, terrapin227 for the Rake; and Don LaVange for the rake.

Grin and bear it: Indrid Cold

It was October 1966, around 9:45 p.m. Two boys–Martin Munov and James Yanchitis–were walking home along a chain link fence below the elevated New Jersey Turnpike. On the other side of the fence lay some shrub brush and a steep, nigh insurmountable slope up to the road. It wasn’t until they stopped to rest that Yanchitis noticed someone standing over there, staring through the links at the house opposite. The stranger’s green suit reflected subtly in the streetlight.

“He was strangest guy we’ve ever seen,” Yanchitis would later recount. “He was standing behind that fence. I don’t know how he got there. He was the biggest man I ever saw.”

Yanchitis urged Munov, whose back was to the man, to turn around and look. 

Man grinning
Like this, only more scary and less human, probably.

“Jimmy nudged me and said, ‘Who’s that guy standing behind you?’ I looked around and there he was… behind that fence.  Just standing there. He pivoted around and looked right at us… then he grinned a big old grin.”

The two boys ran like mad. Later, their accounts to both the police and to John Keel (paranormal investigator and author of “The Mothman Prophecies”) would be identical. The man on the other side of the fence was over 6’2” and broad in the chest, with a black belt, beady eyes, and a smile to make your blood run cold. The legend of the Grinning Man had begun. 

A salesman sewn up

Three weeks later, on November 2, 1966, 50-year old sewing machine salesman Woodrow Derenberger was having an awful commute home from work. The evening was cold and wet, and he’d already had an incident where a machine became dislodged from the back of his truck. Now he had to drive infuriatingly slow down interstate 77 to keep from losing anything else, other cars zipping past. Imagine his frustration when something large and dark pulled up beside him, then swung ahead and cut him off. 

Oil lamp
Like the glass part on this, only an alien spacecraft.

It was not a police car, nor some douchebag in a sports car. It was not a car at all. It looked like a kerosene lamp chimney, windowless, glistening black, 30-35 feet long–long enough to block off both lanes of the highway. It was not on the road so much as it was floating above it, a good 8-10 inches off the ground. Then a door opened in the side of the thing, just like it would any other car, and a man stepped out. 

The man was smiling. He looked like any other man, albeit unusually tan for that time of year. His hair was slicked back, and he sported a metallic blue suit under his dark blue overcoat. He approached the side of Derenberger’s car, grin stuck firmly in place, arms crossed with knuckles in his armpits. Then, without the man ever opening his mouth, he and Derenberger had a conversation

“He walked to the right hand side of the truck, and he told me to roll down the window. He asked me to roll down the window on my right hand side of my truck, and I done what he asked…he asked me, he said ‘Why are you frightened?’ He said ‘Don’t be frightened, we wish you no harm’. He said ‘We mean you not harm, we wish you only happiness.’ And I told him my name, and when I told him my name he said he was called ‘Cold’.

“…He asked me what the city of Parkersburg–he pointed to the light. He didn’t point but he gave the impression that he was pointing, and he asked me what that was called and I told him it was Parkersburg, it was a city, a town. And he asked me if most all the people lived in this city or town. And I explained to him that it was a place of business, it’s where we transacted our business but the people lived in communities, outline communities, most of the people…and again he told me not to be frightened, which I was.

“I was very frightened and as far as I can understand, this was all mental, there was no spoken words from him. I knew what he was asking me but yet he stood there and his mouth did not move. He had a smile on his face, he appeared very courteous and friendly, and after I talked with him a while, he told me, he said ‘We will see you again’.”

Derenberger sat, stunned, as the man climbed back into his vehicle and it flew away. When he finally got home to his wife, he was shaking so badly that she was the one who had to call the police. When asked later whether he believed if Cold would really come back again, Derenberger replied: 

“Well, I did believe it, but now I don’t know how to answer that honestly. Because I’m afraid he will. And I don’t want him to, but I have a feeling that he will.”

Friends for life

Cold did come back. He came to Derenberger’s house. Interacted with Derenberger’s wife. He revealed his first name was Indrid, that he was from another dimension, not unlike our own. He took Derenberger away for days at a time. 

Meanwhile, all the business with the Mothman was going on just down the road. The daughter of a family plagued by floating lights woke to find a broad, 6-foot tall man grinning over her bed. A strange man with a bowl haircut and unnerving eyes harassed a local reporter, trying to get more information about the people who were reporting–in droves–hovering lights in the sky. An identically described man visited the homes of several of those people, claiming to be a reporter from Cambridge, Ohio, though he had no idea where Columbus, Ohio (just a few miles down the road from Cambridge) was.

Derenberger went to reporters with his story. He gave interviews, wrote a book. The ensuing media blitz and harrassing calls eventually caused his wife to divorce him. She had said from the beginning that Cold’s agenda was an “evil” one. Derenberger lost his job, his home, his friends. Still, Derenberger continued to accept Cold’s visits. Continued to leave with him, though every time he returned he complained of debilitating migraines. This continued to his dying day in 1990, at the age of 79. 

Where in the world is Indrid Cold?

So what’s been happening since 1990? The thing about Indrid Cold (and his ilk) is that they look so much like everyone else that it’s difficult to say whether any alleged sightings of him hold water. Even those that have been reported have been few and far between. 

Starry night sky
Just for ambiance.

Blogger H. R. Zapruder said that he drove by a grinning man on the highway outside of Roswell in 2009. One person on Reddit claimed to be Cold himself. In an effort to get a handle on what might have happened to Cold–and all of the Grinning Men–the site Trust No More has put out a call for sighting reports. They give the following criteria to look out for:

  • tall, wide body
  • often described as hairless
  • a green or blue one-piece suit that is reflective like tin foil
  • strange-looking tan
  • eyes set unnaturally far apart
  • shallow nose
  • can communicate telepathically
  • causes confusions, fugues, and loses of time
  • telekinetic or poltergeist activity
  • seen near UFO sightings
  • coming or going in a strange craft
  • seen in people’s homes, standing over them as they sleep

The call has been open for about a year (at the time of this writing)–it will be interesting to see what comes out of it.  

But let’s be honest–if Indrid is out there, it’s not so much an issue of you finding him.  It’s about him finding you

What is the strangest pedestrian you have ever seen on the side of the road? Share your story in the comments below. 

IMAGE CREDIT: All Wikimedia Commons: The Sporting News for the baseball guy; Flicker user jd_09 for the lamp; and Michael J. Bennett for the stars that we can’t see here in the city.

The cold never bothered me anyway: Yuki Onna

In the spirit of the holidays, let’s talk about a monster that can leave you looking like Jack Torrance at the end of The Shining!   

Yuki Onna (which translates to “Snow Woman”) is a Japanese yokai that borders on the edge of being too popular to be featured on this blog. First written about during the Muromachi period (1333 – 1573), she has survived centuries to proliferate in movies, video games, and anime, even having her own TV Tropes page. There are as many versions of her tale as there are designs of a snowflake. Most nowadays cleave to a romantic, sorrowful, un-Monster-Meet-like interpretation of her, but it was not always that way.

Thin ice

Yuki Onna
Yuki Onna doin’ her thing and wearing clothes.

Different Japanese prefectures have different takes on Yuki Onna, but by and large, she was originally conceived of as either a harbinger of the changing seasons and/or a gifter of icy death.Travellers would spot something in the falling snow: a beautiful woman with translucent skin, black hair, blue lips, and turbulent, violet eyes. Leaving no tracks–sometimes having no feet at all–she would drift lightly a few inches above the snow. Though the wind might howl and the traveller’s eyelashes be crusted with ice, the woman would be wearing nothing more than a light kimono (and sometimes less than that). 

If you as a traveller were exceptionally stupid, you might persue this woman, whereupon she would lead you to your icy death (pro tip: never follow supernatural beings in the wilderness; they almost always lead you to your death. Especially if they’re trying to be all seductive.). Try to ignore her, and Yuki Onna might call to you. In certain prefectures, responding to her call would earn you a shove down a ravine your death. In others, not responding to her call would earn you a shove down a ravine to your death. 

Sometimes Yuki Onna would show up with a child in her arms (especially if there was one missing and their parents were out searching for them). Try to take the child, and it would become so heavy that you would be dragged down and die frozen in the snow. Refuse to take the child and you would be–have you guessed it?–shoved down a ravine to your death. Alternately, Yuki Onna might just eat you (if you looked her in her face), or suck out your vital energy (if you happened to live in a certain prefecture). 

When not frightening strangers in snowy passes, Yuki Onna could be found tricking her way in (or straight up busting in) to houses to freeze everyone inside. She’d also wander through villages demanding water (give her cold water, and she would bulge to a monstrous size; hot water, and she would disappear). There are several stories of her appearing on or around the New Year, which range from simply showing up in a ghostly, frightening manner to her stealing away children en masse to play in a field. 

In sum, Yuki Onna seems to have started out representing all of the cruelty of winter. It might even be said that she represented the cruelty of life, as Wikipedia puts it (with shocking poetry): “Old tales about yuki-onna are mostly stories of sorrow, and it is said that these tales started from when people who have lived gloomy lives, such as childless old couples or single men in mountain villages, would hear the sound of a blizzard knocking on their shutter door and fantasize that the thing that they longed for has come. It is said that after that, they would live in happiness with what they longed for in a fantasy as fleeting as snow.” 

Cold comfort

After the 18th century, Yuki Onna started reflecting a more romantic version of reality. Nowadays, she shows up less as a scantily clad woman who would brutally murder you and more as a scantily clad woman who maybe you could marry and be happy with for a while–at least until her identity is revealed. 

One story makes her out to be a moon princess, who long ago grew bored with her pampered life and so fell with the snow to the earth. Now she can’t get back, and so appears on winter nights with the full moon, longing to go home. (This seems much more romantic than, say, the version of Yuki Onna that eats child livers.) 

Yuki Onna reconstituted.

Another tells of tells of a man who married a beautiful woman who was pale as snow. The man loved to take long, hot baths at night, and was puzzled by his wife’s refusal to bathe as he did. Finally he badgered and cajoled her enough to try it, and when he looked in to see how she was doing, all that was left of her were a few icicle fragments in the water. 

The most popular tale comes from a Westerner retelling (probably with embellishments) a story he was told while collecting Japanese ghost stories around the turn of the 20th century. The tale describes two woodcutters–one older, the other younger–who were stranded in a hut during a blizzard. The younger man woke in the dead of night to find a pale woman standing over his friend. As he watched, she sucked the life out of the older man until he was nothing but a frost-covered corpse. The woman went to do the same to the younger man, but stopped at his handsomeness. She told him that she’d let him go, but that if he ever spoke to anyone–even his own mother–of what had happened, that she would find him and kill him.

The young man recovered from the trauma of the night, never saying a word of it. He met a pretty young woman on the road one winter, and ended up marrying her. They led a happy life, having a whopping ten children. Then, one fateful night, the man was watching his wife sew in the light of a paper lantern. Something about it reminded him of his terrible vision during the blizzard all those years ago. He finally got it off his chest, telling his wife every detail. She listened patiently until he was finished, and then turned on him, lips darkening, eyes black with rage. Only then did he recognize her as the woman from the hut. Yuki Onna raged against him, stopping short of killing him only for the sake of their children. Then she vanished in a gust of snow, never to be seen again. 

Snowglobe

So what’s the deal with legends of deadly women emerging from the snow? Yuki Onna is hardly unique in that regard–there are stories of snow women from all over the place

One interesting take involves “paradoxical disrobing”–the phenomenon where people with severe hypothermia suddenly feel very hot and start to take off their clothes. It could be that before that phenomenon was known, those that happened upon half-naked corpses in the snow drew their own conclusions about what had gone down. Other explanations include optical illusions brought on by temperature inversion, delirium from hypothermia, or just plain hyperactive imaginations during cold, dark storms. 

It makes sense for us to be afraid of winter. We may have forgotten just how much sense it makes, locked up inside our cozy homes drinking beverages with enough cholesterol to kill a horse, but it does. Stories like that of Yuki Onna help us remember if not the particulars, then the emotion behind them. 

Stay warm out there. 

If a ghostly snow lady called to you, would you answer, or pretend to be absorbed in your phone? Share your survival plan in the comments below. 

IMAGE CRED: Sawaki Suushi for thoughtful Yuki Onna and Brigham Young University for the smug Yuki Onna.

Just slap some spackle over it: Castle Houska and the gateway to Hell

About an hour outside of Prague, alone among thick forest, swamps, and mountains, there sits a 13th-century castle atop a sheer limestone cliff. The castle Houska (Hoe-skuh) has no outward-facing fortifications, and is guarded only by a lone statue of the saint Ludmila, now weathered and half-covered with moss. Houska cannot be reached by bus, and is too remote to bike to. The only way in is by car.

Castle Houska
Castle Houska.

Though the years have added new structures and purpose to Houska, its original, deeply odd shape remains. It must have taken an enormous amount of time and resources to erect that original structure, but when it was finished, there was little in it that made sense, and even less to encourage human habitation.  Houska was not positioned along any trade route, political line, or militarily strategic position. There was no water nearby. There was no kitchen. Some even claim that many of its windows were fake–stone frames that looked pretty from the outside, but let no light within. 

Most strangely of all, the castle had no fortifications of any kind. At least–it’s fortifications were not facing the outside. All instead turned within, aimed toward a chapel built over layers upon layers of heavy stone slabs. 

The walls of the chapel are thick. Unusual frescos stretch along them: Saint Michael the Archangel skewers a horned demon. A left-handed centaur aims her arrow at another woman’s throat. As the sun lowers down over the mountains, light disappearing off the altar, screams can be heard echoing from under the rock. 

The chapel.

Pit of despair

One of the great things about Houska is how far back its story goes. It could well be that humans inhabited (or avoided) its site since pre-recorded history. The stories that we can corroborate begin around AD 900, when a Slavic prince built a wooden castle there in honor of his beloved son. No sooner did people start to move in did a great crack split underneath of it, releasing unspeakable horrors that quickly left the castle abandoned and the surrounding countryside in terror. 

For 300 years, giant creatures with leathery wings stalked the sky, picking off livestock and travelers that got too close to the hole. Half-human, half-beast hybrids attacked people in the woods. Crops wilted and died. Any effort to investigate or seal off the hole was met with frustration at best. It was so deep that none could see its bottom; though the villagers tried to fill it with rocks, it simply swallowed them whole.

Come the mid-1200’s, one Duke Ottokar decided that something had to be done. The Duke set up a little experiment: prisoners condemned to death would be released from their sentence if they would agree to be lowered into this pit and report back on what was down there. The first man to go was a young, eager fellow. He held tight to his rope while the crowd watched the shadows of the pit swallow him. The rope went a little further down, then a little further. Then the screaming began. 

Ludmila trying to keep them demons at bay.

The man’s howls echoed in the hole, his rope trembling in the hands of the men desperately pulling him back up. By the time he reached the surface, it was too late. The man’s hair had gone completely white, skin withered and gray, eyes wild, speech hysterical and rambling. He blubbered about a terrible smell, screams in the dark, and then lapsed into incoherence. A few days later, he would die without offering the frightened people any more information. 

Some say that the Duke repeated experiment a few more times after that, with similar results. Others say that after seeing what happened to the first guy, no other prisoner volunteered for the job. Either way, if it wasn’t obvious before, it was now: The pit was clearly a gateway to Hell. It had to be covered up.

Down the rabbit hole

The Duke set his men about the long and expensive task of saving the countryside. First the pit was covered with tons of heavy slabs. Then they built  a chapel on top of that, with the hope that its symbolism and power would keep the demons permanently at bay. Around that chapel they erected a castle, all of its fortifications built inside out: it was not meant to keep invaders out, after all, but in. 

It was a great effort, but not entirely a success. To this day, disturbing visions plague Houska’s surrounding hillside: A horse (or man) runs full speed, their headless stump of a neck gushing blood. A woman in white peeks out of the castle walls. A group of shackled men shuffle forward, carrying dismembered body parts and cringing against attacks from a great black dog. 19th-century poet Karel Hynek Mácha spent the night and not only saw a disturbing funeral procession, but also had a prophetic dream of the year 2006. It’s not exactly a walk in the park. 

A shot of Houska’s interior.

Add to that the strange, sometimes evil things that keep happening there. Houska has been used variously as a hunting lodge (it is filled with an insane number of deer heads), a dumping ground, and a sanitorium. During the ugly Thirty Years’ War, a sadistic Swedish officer named Oronto took up residence in the castle, hoping that its power would boost his black magic. In a last, desperate effort to stop him, a party of hunters set out to shoot him down. They finally managed to get him through a window of the castle, but as he died, he called out for his black hen–presumably in an effort to work some spell to keep himself around for a while yet. While he didn’t survive, his spirit did, and haunts the castle still.

Then there were the Nazis. Houska was one of several castles that they holed up in during the war, where they stored thousands of confiscated books. It is said that they might have conducted human experiments within the castle walls. Certainly they would have tried to plumb its depths for knowledge of the occult–one of their increasingly desperate tactics to get any edge they could. We may never know; when the Allies defeated them, they burned all records, leaving only nasty memories (and a set of bikes) behind. 

Flip that castle

Has the bright light of modernity made the castle any happier of a place to be? Yes and no.

“Yes” in that there are no longer human experiments conducted there (so far as I know…). The castle is now open to the public and can be visited April through October. There are brightly lit, cheerfully decorated parts of it that would fit in in an episode of Gilmore Girls. These can be rented out for various personal, corporate, and artistic occasions–you can even have your wedding there

“No” in that weird stuff keeps happening. Car batteries won’t start. A wine glass floated several feet into the air in the middle of a conversation. A couple that was winding down in the hunting lodge one evening heard a loud thump.  Alarmed, they turned and were faced with two shadowy figures, which approached and started whispering about killing little girls.

Houska, ext.

But modern science and historical sleuthing can explain this stuff away, right? The visions could be the result of noxious gas leaking out of the crack in the limestone. The reason that Houska didn’t have the usual human accommodations or strategic positioning could be that it was built simply as an administrative building. 

The Astonishing Legends podcast (besides being a great resource for those who want to dig more into Houska in general) explores the gaps where these common explanations don’t quite make sense. Why would Duke Ottokar choose to build an administrative building over a giant hole in the ground? Houska is not situated over a volcano…any noxious gas that the initial crack might have produced should have dissipated over the centuries, right? And what kind of gas would it be, exactly, that would cause everyone to have the same types of visions over the years, that wouldn’t automatically kill anyone who got close enough, and that, instead of making people tired and dull, would make them active and fearful (like the poor sap that was first lowered into the pit)? 

My favorite myths are ones that can’t be fully dismissed. Houska is one of them. If nothing else, it is a bottomless pit of mystery, and will hopefully leave us guessing for years to come. 

Did you know that “Houska” means “braided bread roll” in Czech? Figure out the significance of that sh*t in the comments below.

IMAGE CRED: A big thank you to Ladislav Boháč for Houska in the hills; Scary Side of Earth for both the chapel and the chandelier; ŠJů (cs:ŠJů) for Ludmila; and ladabar for Houska’s exterior.

Ghosted by a ghost: the black monk of Pontefract

It was August, 1966. In an unassuming house at 30 East Drive, Pontefract, England, Sarah Scholes was watching her 15-year old grandson Philip Pritchard while his parents and sister were away for the holiday week. Though the weather was hot, the house was curiously cold. Then Philip walked into the living room and stopped: There was a fine white dust falling silently from chest-height all around the room. 

30 East Drive.

The pair were very confused. It would make more sense if the dust were drifting down from the ceiling (though not much more, as the house had been recently renovated). But appearing mid-air? Sarah called Philip’s aunt Marie over from where she lived across the street to get a second opinion. Marie did not know where the dust came from, either, but she knew it needed to get cleaned up. She went into the kitchen to get a rag, and slipped in a puddle of water that hadn’t been there a moment before. Grumbling to herself, she mopped the puddle up, only to have another appear. And another.

They called the water company. The water company couldn’t figure out where the puddles were coming from, either. Marie went home, and Sarah and Philip tried to move on with their lives. Then, around 7 o’clock, Philip’s startled cry came out of the kitchen.

“Grandma, it’s happening again!”

Loose leaf tea and sugar lay strewn all over the counter. The button on the tea dispenser clicked and then depressed, splashing steaming tea over the mess. Then it went down again. And again. And again, hissing, continuing to depress even as the water ran out, faster, and faster. “Stop!” Sarah cried. “Stop it!”

CRASH. Something in the hall. They stumbled over see what it was. The hall was empty, dark. The silence built, and then light clicked on, startling them both.

Rue Morgue notes that a typically agreed-upon definition of a poltergeist is trickster-like activity stemming from from psychokinesis (often perpetuated by a young person in distress). The poltergeist doesn’t seriously harm its victims, and quickly goes away with time or therapy. 

The things happening at 30 East Drive don’t fit that definition. For one, the presence there has shown itself on multiple occasions to not just be energy, but a tall figure robed in black. It has a tendency to come in full force and then fade away, but has persisted for over 50 years. Instead of coming from children, it attacks children. And it means people harm.  

Still, they call the Black Monk of Pontefract a poltergeist, anyway. The most violent poltergeist in Britain

Who you gonna call?

After that initial day of horror (which culminated in a violently rocking dresser and the two fleeing the house to sleep at a neighbor’s), the activity ceased for a full two years. Grandma probably  got tired of trying to convince the family that they hadn’t been seeing things; maybe she even managed to convince herself. 

A grandfather clock was one of the many objects hurled around.

But just as they started to relax, the ghost came back full force. Loud crashes became a part of daily life, as did objects (including a solid oak sideboard) flying through the air or disappearing and reappearing in odd places. Green foam burst out of the sink. An aunt got an entire carton of milk dumped over her head. The daughter of the family, Diane, was thrown out of bed, and, on a few occasions, would wake up on the floor with her mattress on top of her.

Things escalated from there. The disturbances became so common that the family gave the ghost a name: Fred. Though there were bad signs–attacks focused on Diane, family photos brutally slashed–the Pritchards refused to move out. It was their house, after all. 

Instead, they tried to force the ghost out with exorcisms. These were met with walls weeping with holy water, people getting slapped and shoved down the stairs, upside down crosses, and a pair of women’s fur gloves conducting the songs meant to drive Fred out. 

Then one night Mr. and Mrs. Pritchard woke to find a tall, dark figure hovering over their bed. He quickly disappeared, but later, other people started seeing him around the house, too, though they never saw his face. More people–the family and visitors alike–got pushed, slapped, scratched, bruised. Then Diane’s hair stood straight up, and she was dragged, screaming, up an entire flight of stairs. The incident left her badly traumatized, and with finger-shaped bruises on her throat.

And just like that, all supernatural activity cut off again. The ghost, it seemed, was over it.

Historical reenactments

A Cluniac monk, to help along your imagination.

But the living were not over the ghost. 10 years after Fred took his leave, Cluniac monk researcher Tom Cluniff happened to hear about what had gone on at 30 East Drive. He put the  pieces of the past together with the present. A 16th-century monk had been convicted for the rape and murder of an adolescent girl (in an uncomfortable twist, an adolescent girl about Diane’s age), and hanged just across the street from where the house now stands. 

Suddenly the black robes of the figure so many people had seen in the house (and around the neighborhood, by the way) made sense. Of course! Fred was a monk. And thus the moniker “Black Monk of Pontefract” was born, and the interest in the ghost renewed. 

One of the interested parties was director Pat Holden, a Pontefract native related by marriage to Jean Pritchard, matron of 30 East Drive. Holden was so excited about Cluniff’s findings–and what he’d heard about the haunting–that he decided to make a movie. 

Back in black

In 2012, Holden’s When the Lights Went Out captured both the idea of poltergeists as psychokinetic energy as well as the history of the Black Monk. Though the indie film garnered mixed reviews, it further reignited the imagination of the public, and, in so doing, reignited the haunting. 

Producer Bill Bungay discovered house was for sale, and bought it so that he could have his movie premier in style. He didn’t believe in the ghost, so even though his phone behaved oddly in the house and there were reports of strange lights and noises, he didn’t think much of it. He dismissed the warnings of the neighbors, who had seen Fred around again. He shrugged off the psychic who said during the premiere that she could see Fred watching them from his favorite place on the stairs. 

Then came one night when Bungay was outside 30 East Drive alone, locking up the gate after a day of documentary shooting. He put the plunger on the gate down and secured it (with difficulty) with a cinderblock. Then he turned to lock the door to the house. But his house key had disappeared from his pocket. He glanced uneasily over his shoulder, and found that the gate that he had just shut stood wide open. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end.

Marbles are a common projectile.

Bungay has shown Fred more respect after that (though Fred often throws things at him, missing him by a hair). He now rents 30 East Drive to people curious about the haunting. This has resulted in a number of interesting photos, and 288 accounts of happenings at the house. Included in them is a story where the neighbors were visiting Bungay, and one of their granddaughters came into the room, taking a bite out of a polystyrene orange. Her grandmother quickly took it and scolded her, asking her where she’d even got it from. The girl replied innocently: “A man in black gave it to me.” 

You can browse the rest of the occurrences here. They range from your typical bangings and mutterings to reports such as the following:

“Asked sister in toilet “Are you alright” which she replied “Yes thank you” BUT at the exact same time she replied the WHOLE GROUP said “Wow, did you hear that!”? A man’s “HMM MMM” mocking sister’s reply.”

“Possible spirits of dogs photographed.”

There are also a few more serious ones:

“Arriving early the group knocked on the door of 30 East Drive on the off chance there was someone in but the house was locked and vacant. As the group turned and walked back down the path someone started loudly and aggressively banging on the window as if to get their attention. The group presumed someone was indeed inside and returned only to reconfirm that the house was still firmly locked and vacant, a fact later confirmed when the house was opened for the waiting group 30 mins later.”

“Group leader asked if ‘Fred’ wanted to “play”. Then a noise was heard on the landing so the group leader rushed to see and standing in the doorway off the small bedroom was a really tall black figure which moved into the room behind the door. Not thinking, the group leader walked straight into the shadow, an experience that affected him badly.”

Want to get in on the fun? 30 East Drive is available for rent today for £300-400 a night (free if you happen to be a theoretical physicist). If you’re not in the UK, don’t have that kind of cash, or don’t have the desire to spend the night in a place where the bed was recently flipped over and trashed at 3am, you can join the 30 East Drive Facebook group

Either way, I would hurry up and get involved before Fred ups and loses interest again. It’s only a matter of time. 

Flour, snow, talc, or cocaine? Free associate your thoughts about white powder in the comments below. 

IMAGE CRED: Mark Stevenson for the house photo; Twdk for the grandfather clock that is not THE grandfather clock (but it will do); F. A. Gasquet for less murder-y monk; James Petts for the marbles (again, not THE marbles, but hey).